Forced to pick between observance and graduation, Jewish Bruins choose both


Aaron Ebriani was 11 when his father, Eli, died, and the event inspired him to honor his memory by fulfilling as many mitzvot as possible — and by helping others do the same.

So when he realized a few months ago that all of UCLA’s departmental graduations fell on Shabbat or the holiday of Shavuot, he saw a chance to commemorate his father by helping some fellow students keep the faith.  

“I jumped on it,” he said onstage June 9, standing in front of about 80 other Jewish undergraduates during a ceremony he instituted. “This entire graduation was done in [my father’s] name.” 

Ebriani’s realization was followed by a flurry of emails and hours of meetings to organize a Thursday afternoon graduation that Jewish students could attend without violating proscriptions against driving or carrying objects on a holiday.

To demonstrate the need for such an event, he circulated a petition to present to UCLA’s administration that gathered more than 300 signatures. Later, Rebecca Zaghi, a graduating senior who directed the event, went through each of the names on the petition to send an invitation via text message.

Although Shabbat-observant Jews could attend a class-wide graduation before dusk on June 10, they would have had to break Shabbat or Shavuot to attend the smaller ceremony in the following days associated with their individual majors.

“The whole idea was that departmental [graduations] are more small and intimate,” Zaghi told the Journal. “They’re the people that you’ve taken classes with and grown with.”

Statistics from UCLA and the Jewish student organization Hillel International suggest that most of the approximately 450 Jewish UCLA seniors did not attend the ceremony. But, using Hillel at UCLA’s status as a registered campus organization, along with $1,000 in Hillel funding, the June 9 graduation nearly filled each of the 505 seats in the auditorium of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with friends and families.

“You have 80 Jewish students who for the first time ever self-organized a graduation so that they could observe our traditions,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”

Zaghi said that at her and Ebriani’s urging, UCLA administrators have made note of the next year when Shavuot would interfere with graduation — 2024 — and are taking steps to avoid the conflict. But she said now that the tradition has started, moving forward, “Why shouldn’t the Jewish community have their own graduation?”

“If it wasn’t for Shavuot and the whole conflict with graduation, none of us would be here today,” Ebriani said at the event. “So let’s take a moment to appreciate that.”

The ceremony began after the graduates filed in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Then Heather Rosen, the UCLA student president, who is Jewish, called for a moment of silence for William Klug, the professor slain on campus the previous week in a murder-suicide, along with the four victims of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv the day before. The sound of raucous cheers and air horns blown with abandon quickly died out as audience members bowed their heads.

Toward the end of the ceremony, when UCLA Dean of Students Maria Blandizzi asked the crowd to hold its applause until she finished conferring degrees, her request predictably fell on deaf ears, as celebratory cries and air horns sounded nearly throughout, despite a visibly irate usher who confiscated the noisemakers.

When Ebriani marched across the stage, it was a culmination not just of a UCLA degree, but also months spent to put the event together. “It really wasn’t the easiest thing,” he said in an interview the next day. “But I’m glad we did it.” 

Advice to grads: Go forth and create a masterpiece


Having recently attended the college graduation of our youngest child, I could not stop thinking about what I might say if given the opportunity to offer the commencement address. Five thoughts come to mind:  

Continue to learn and teach: At the moment you were born — whether conscience of it or not — all of you have been students. All of you were constantly learning from others, patterning and comparing yourselves to the world around you.

At the same time, you have always been teachers. Beginning with infancy, you taught your parents and family about the preciousness of life and the awe-inspiring responsibility of raising a child simply by your being born.  You’ve taught them about themselves, as they observed and raised you.

As you leave the womb that is the college environment, all of you become teachers. If not literal credentialed teachers, figuratively so. You are now college graduates. Teach and share what you’ve learned over the past four years. Don’t gloat over your degree or your school’s namesake.

Develop and maintain a humble soul: All of you feel a great sense of accomplishment; you’ve worked hard. But it’s expected that you worked hard and made sacrifices while in college. College is not summer camp. If anything, being in college is a supreme gift. Metaphorically, all of you stand on the shoulders of the generations that have come before you. All of you have benefited from those who built and maintained your school.

By now you should also know some students wishing to attend particular schools have been turned down for inexplicable reasons. Some students get accepted for reasons equally inexplicable.

A humble soul knows and a prudent mind understands that some things in life come about due to luck or randomness. Even if you worked diligently through grade school and did well on college entrance exams and got accepted to the school of your choice, you’re lucky to have had other things given to you allowing you to succeed. So, keep a humble perspective about what you’ve accomplished. You have been given at least as much.

[READ: OUTSTANDING TEEN GRADUATES 2015]

Include God/godliness in your life: College is a secular institution — it is not a seminary where you’d expect to grapple with such ideas. But with a notion of the transcendent, and the discipline of healthy religion, you will live a more balanced and enriched life.  You will handle failures better and you will understand and appreciate success more. With all the questions you posed while in college, ponder this:  The most important question one can possibly ask is whether God exists.

Don’t be fearful: Go out and take some risks. There is an obsession in our day with health and safety. You’ve been told to fear changes in the environment, certain types of food, strangers, and the economy to name a few. Enough! Go live. Some parents think their duty is to raise children.  That’s only partially correct.  The duty of parents is to raise adults.  So, become adults.

Arguably, you are at a point in your life where you are the most resilient. Take some chances — don’t be fearful. Learn how to fail and you’ll learn how to succeed. A successful person has failed many more times than one deemed a failure.  If not now, when?

Enjoy the journey: Life goes fast.  Notice I said life goes fast, not time. Time is a human convention. We’ve invented and formatted time to help us function and “navigate” through life. There is no such thing as time, per se. A waste of time is, more emphatically, a waste of life.

Don’t think of life only in terms of goals to be met, quotas to be filled and appointments to be kept. In your haste to get a job, choose a spouse, pay off a debt (including student loans), take a breath and reorient yourself; savor the journey as much as, if not more than, the goals you set out to achieve.

One last thought: Sadly, for many of you, college will be the high point of your life — I sincerely hope it is not. Like the Bible’s portrayal of the Seraphs wielding fiery batons at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, preventing man and woman from ever returning, you too can never return to your undergraduate days.  Don’t fret; that’s a good thing. 

The biblical depiction is an allegorical way of saying, “Get going — don’t even think of coming back.” And so it is with all of you — it’s now time to move on, to get going. 

Contrary to popular opinion, which holds college life is not indicative of the real world,  every occurrence we encounter is real. Life, wherever and however lived, is not an illusion. But college is only a few years in a lifetime of accumulated experiences, ongoing challenges and adventures.  So, go out and continue to learn and teach; develop a humble soul; include God; don’t be fearful; enjoy the journey, and in the process, make your life a masterpiece. 

Bridging the gap: A new paradigm for change


I had occasion recently to revisit the Masters Thesis I wrote in 1972 for my degree in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis University. I needed to reference it for an article I’m writing… and I was curious to see whether I would have been able to pass the Zelikow School’s thesis requirement. (I believe I would have, but since I’m also the grader, I may not be a reliable judge.)

The title of my thesis was “The Jewish Whole Earth Catalogue: Theory and Development.” It was the precursor to The Jewish Catalog which was published the following year and became a kind of manifesto of and guide to the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

I am proud to say, I was a charter member of the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s… as were a number of people in this sanctuary. Now it is true that the late-60s Jewish counterculture committed a number of sins for which we are still confessing:

  • We were arrogant…
  • We were naive…
  • We were narcissistic…
  • We were impatient…

 

But we did have a legitimate critique of American Jewish life, and we were offering some new ideas for its reinvigoration. To be clear, we weren’t just pointing out the Jewish community’s faults and admonishing it to change its priorities. As activists, we were working to make the change happen, to “be the change we wanted to see,” to use a contemporary aphorism. And this was not a case of “Hadesh yomanu k’kedem” (“Renew our days as of old.”), but rather of “Ev’en ma’asu ha-bonim hoyetah le’rosh pina.” (“The stones which the last generation discarded, have become the cornerstone of the new building.”) We wanted to revolutionize the American Jewish community from top to bottom.

As an aside, I recently read a quote by Garry Trudeau where he said “…one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness… is that it's so frequently confused with courage.” But back to our revolutionary agenda.

Break up the synagogues. Bring the rabbis down from their pulpits. Create new rituals that speak to the issues of the day, like Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder or celebrations of women’s experience, like simchat bat ceremonies. Create new ritual objects which reflect the aesthetic of hiddur mitzvah, like multi-colored tallesim or hand-calligraphed, egalitarian ketubbot. And above all, empower the individual Jew to take the tradition into his or her own hands. The 60s Jewish counterculture was the original Jewish DIY movement… whether building your own sukkah, baking your own hallah, or moving to Israel to build a new kibbutz…

As captured in the somewhat frothy introduction to The Jewish Catalog (whose subtitle, btw, was “A Do-it-Yourself Kit”), the objective was to “move away from prefabricated, spoon-fed, nearsighted Judaism into the stream of possibilities for personal responsibility and physical participation. This entails,” it continued, “returning the control of the Jewish environment to the hands of the individual – through accessible knowledge of the what, where, who and how of contemporary Judaism.”

Although we were certainly accused of it, this was not just Baby Boomer narcissism and self-entitlement; this was Baby Boomer optimism and self-empowerment. We saw how all around us the larger American society was undergoing radical change, almost overnight… civil rights, feminism, the anti-Vietnam movement, the sexual revolution, identity politics, ethnic pride… And we asked, why not the Jewish community, as well?

Surprisingly, both to ourselves and to our elders, we actually had a modicum of success; we had an impact… and, I would argue, a positive impact… on the character and direction of American Jewish life. Over the past 50 years, the community has changed in some significant ways as a result of the attitudes, ideas and initiatives fomented by this motley group of 20- and 30-somethings. Synagogues changed: they created havurot, not quite the commune-like structure of Havurat Shalom in Boston, but a real effort to down-size and make the synagogue more intimate. Communal priorities changed: after the student take-over of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1969, Jewish education and identity catapulted to the top of the communal agenda. Prayer changed: people started praying like they meant it… with kavannah/intentionality often accompanied by Shlomo Carlbach’s niggunim and later with Debbie Friedman’s prayer songs. And attitudes changed: feminist theology and spirituality, together with pressure for gender equality, transformed the face of American Judaism.

Now, this is all very well and good, and we can all pat ourselves on the back, but why is this relevant to today’s ceremonies? Let me suggest three reasons:

  1. First and most important… Because the work is not over. Major changes are needed in some critical areas of American Jewish life in order to stay relevant and compelling.
  2. Second, I bring this up to remind ourselves that, as my wife likes to say, “The way things are is not the way they have to be.” While change is inevitable; creative and adaptive change is a human invention… We can make it happen.
  3. And third, I raise this now… davka because this is not the 60s. The Jewish community in the first decades of the 21st century has very different structural, organizational, generational and psychological challenges than it had in the middle of the last century. And we need very different thinking to address these challenges.

 

The work is not over… change is possible…and we need a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the underlying ethos of the times…

  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can help us keep up with the changes coursing through modern society… whether technological or sociological.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can create anew or re-engineer the Jewish organizational infrastructure which is no longer working for the next generations emerging onto the scene.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can make Jewish life a more competitive option to the myriad attractions and distractions of contemporary secular culture.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can renegotiate our emotional attachment to Israel, in light of ever changing present-day realities.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can actualize the global Jewish shtetl and give contemporary meaning to “Kol Yisroel arevim ve’b’ze.” (All Israel is responsible for each other.)

 

The work is not over… and the Jewish community needs you, our graduates! Our Millennial graduates!

It’s interesting that in the Millennial generation, the old socio-political dichotomy of the 60s and 70s… with the stogy Establishment, on the one side, and the Baby Boomer counterculture, on the other… doesn’t exist anymore. In the 60s, these were adversaries with very different world-views and values, and the Baby Boomers had to mount a full-scale assault… a revolution, in the terminology of the day… in order to get the Establishment to even recognize them, let alone, relinquish some of its power to them. Sometimes the assault was literal, like the March on Washington in 1963, the public burning of draft cards, the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Woodstock… and in the Jewish world, the student take-over of the General Assembly, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the creation of alternatives to mainstream institutions… havurot instead of synagogues, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education instead of the Bureaus of Jewish Education, Breira as an alternative voice on post-1967 Israel, Response magazine as an alternative voice to Commentary, the Jewish Student Press Service as an alternative voice to what passed for Jewish journalism… There wasn’t a Generation Gap; there was generational warfare.

But that dichotomy doesn’t exist today… not in the broader society and not in the Jewish community. The Boomers and the Millennials, far from being adversaries, actually have a lot in common. Millennial kids generally like their Boomer parents… they still listen to their music, they still have dinner and go to the movies with them… some even still live at home with them. If there’s a generation gap, it’s not in world-view, it’s in technology. If there’s a critique, it’s not about the need for change, it’s about the pace of change.

So too in the Jewish world. The counterculture has been replaced by social entrepreneurs… and the establishment has been replaced by legacy organizations. But these are not adversaries.

They are not adversaries… however, they do tend to occupy different spaces and operate in different orbits. The legacy organizations have their national conferences (the JFNA General Assembly, the URJ Biennial, the JCPA Plenum…)… and the start-ups have theirs (Slingshot Day, the ROI Summit, the newCAJE conference…). The legacy organizations have their news outlets (JTA, the Forward, the Jewish Journal…); the start-ups have theirs (Heeb Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Jewcy…). The legacy organizations have their preferred social media, primarily Facebook; the start-ups have theirs, primarily Twitter.

So while they are not antithetical to one another, they unfortunately have very little to do with each other. I say that it is unfortunate, because in spite of their differences, they are actually allies and need each other. They are both contributing, in their own ways, to what Jumpstart has termed the “Jewish Innovation Ecosystem.” Both legacy organizations and new social enterprises are looking for innovative ways to keep the Jewish brand alive… looking for ways to apply Jewish values, wisdom and world-view to the challenges facing today’s Jewish community.

They are not adversaries; they are allies. And they will only succeed if they work together to build alliances of innovation and change based on their common objective… an American Jewish community that can help Jews… whether affiliated or unaffiliated, whether in-married or inter-married, whether for a two-state solution or against a two-state solution… an American Jewish community that can help Jews spiritually, intellectually and culturally navigate and negotiate the challenges of the contemporary world, both internally and externally.

This is where you come in. You, our graduating students. You can be the bridge between these two reluctant allies. You, our graduating students, are in the unique position of understanding the motivations of both, of having your feet in both, and, therefore, of seeing where linkages and partnerships can be forged. Whether you are in the rabbinate, education or nonprofit management… Whether you end up working for “legacy organizations” – like federations, JCCs, camps, Hillels, advocacy groups, defense agencies, synagogues and schools – or for start-ups, incubators or social enterprises, your unique role is to ask the meta-questions and bring together the strongest and most creative elements in both spheres to address them: What is the best way to provide Jewish education in an age of Google Search and MOOCs? How do we take the cacophony of special interest organizations and turn them into a chorus of renewal? In an age of virtual community and global community, are there new ways to think about Jewish community?

Whether you end up working for legacy organizations or for start-ups, your most valuable skill will be to leverage your relationships to create synergies… to help established organizations adopt social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as their R&D departments… and to help promising start-ups affiliate with more established organizations in order to gain the sustainability, strategic management and infrastructure that they can’t achieve by themselves.

We are beginning to see some examples of this synergy… and its impact:

  • Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles has, for a number of years already, been providing significant sized “Cutting Edge Grants”… some to startups and some to established organizations… but all of them designed to push innovation in the LA Jewish community.
  • On a national level, JTA, which describes itself as The Global Jewish News Source, but whose initials actually stand for Jewish Telegraphic Agency (a decidedly last century creation, if there ever was one), has expanded its media empire by incorporating MyJewishLearning.com, Kveller, and Jewniverse… all Millenial creations.
  • And on an international level, the Joint Distribution Committee is spawning an intrapreneurial venture entitled Entwine which is attracting young Jewish professionals to its global and service learning agenda.

 

These are just beginnings, but they are showing the power of bringing legacy organizations together with newer social enterprises to create a truly all-embracing Jewish Innovation Ecosystem. Relationships can be developed. Linkages can made. Entrepreneurs can become intra-preneurs. Creative and adaptive change can happen. And you… our graduates… our nonprofit professionals, educators and rabbis… can make it happen. Whether you find yourselves in legacy organizations or in young start-ups, you must be the connectors… because you have the skills, education and perspective to forge the partnerships that the American Jewish community needs to face the difficult, but exhilarating challenges ahead.

So, don’t worry about your “youthful cluelessness.” Have “courage,” go forth and make the connections. Because we’re depending on you. Kan y’hi ratzon.

Outstanding Graduate: Rose Bern — A passionate voice


Rose Bern isn’t afraid to fight for her values.

The 17-year-old, who recently graduated from Shalhevet High School and lives in Westwood, has strong convictions when it comes to feminism, justice and fairness. 

In the ninth grade, she gave a passionate speech at her school about women serving as rabbis. She sits on the Fairness Committee, where she and her peers hear cases between two students or a teacher and a student and decide upon a verdict. One day, she might even decide to be a prosecuting attorney and “serve justice to people who deserve it,” she said. “There are certain issues that really get me pumped up.”

Her former music appreciation teacher and journalism advisor Joelle Keene has noticed Bern’s enthusiasm about different causes.

“She's a firecracker,” she said. “She has a tremendous amount of passion, personality, drive and a sense of outrage too.”

Keene said that at Shalhevet, Bern’s candid nature made her stand out amongst the other students.

“She gets fired up about the way things ought to be,” she said. “At the town hall meetings at school, where they present a moral dilemma about school policy, news or the dress code, she'll feel more strongly about it than most of the kids.”

No doubt this tremendous energy has served Bern well in other areas of her life as well, whether through the award-winning writing she did for Shalhevet’s newspaper, The Boiling Point; her acting in numerous drama productions; or her passionate work on the debate team. She even wrote three one-act plays that were produced.

Somehow, she still finds time to be a babysitter every other Shabbat at her shul, the Westwood Village Synagogue, and work as a counselor at Camp Ramah in California.

In 2014, she’ll attend New York University (NYU). But before she goes to the East Coast, she’s taking a yearlong trip to Israel, where she plans to live on multiple kibbutzim and travel the country.

“I really wanted a year to decompress, and I think this is the prime opportunity to do this,” she said. “Once you go to college you don't have much time to explore the world.”

Though Bern said she doesn’t know what she’ll major in at NYU or what kind of career she will end up choosing, she’s interested in the fields of law and psychology.

“I took Advanced Placement psychology this year, and it was the most fascinating thing in the world,” she said. “[Learning about] the way people behave and why they behave that way, [as well as about] their inner consciousness really struck me.”

What’s most important to Bern is making sure that she is content with whatever she chooses to do. 

“I want to make sure that at the end of my life, I did everything I could,” she said. “I want to be able to look back and say I did it all because I wanted to, and I didn’t let outside circumstances, like money, [dictate my life]. I just want to be happy.”

Outstanding Graduate: Daniel Schwartz — Grad’s goal: A better world


Tis the graduation season, but unlike most 17-year-olds wrapping up their high school careers in recent days and weeks, Daniel Schwartz knows exactly what he wants to do with his life. 

“I want to go to law and business school and receive a JD and an MBA,” the recent graduate of Shalhevet High School said. “I want to go into medical devices and then get into politics later in life. Whatever field you go into, you should do something meaningful with it.”

Schwartz has had no problem following that mantra so far, whether it’s been as co-captain of the varsity baseball team or chair of the Agenda Committee (school president).

He has honed his intellectual skills by taking part in Model UN and being captain of the debate team. A Model Congress participant as well, earlier this year he became the first Modern Orthodox Jew to be elected president of the University of Pennsylvania’s Model Congress.

Schwartz said he would like to go into law and politics because he’s always been interested in debate. 

“My parents said that when I was young, I would argue with them a lot, and I still do,” he said. “I like thought process and analyzing things as opposed to education that’s strictly memorization. I love coming up with new, innovative ideas.”

One area in which this attitude has come into play is the study of Talmud. Noam Weissman, principal of Judaic studies at Shalhevet and Talmud teacher, characterized Schwartz as a talmudic scholar. 

He also said that Schwartz is “the type of leader that gets his peers involved in the right thing. He does an admirable job of leading people to get into studying Torah and getting them to be more passionate about Judaism. He’s not just a religious Jew, and he’s not just a thoughtful Jew. He’s a thoughtful religious Jew. That’s a special thing to see. We don’t see that often enough.”

Schwartz, who attends Beth Jacob Synagogue with his family, describes himself as a Modern Orthodox Jew and a Zionist. In ninth grade, he volunteered for Etta Israel Center, where he worked with young adults with special needs, and this fall, he will attend Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Israel to further his Jewish education. 

“I love to learn, and I love doing Talmud,” he said. “[I wanted] to devote a year of my life to it.”

He added, “I love the State of Israel and I’ve always wanted to live there for at least some portion of my life. I think it’s important to contribute to the land if you’re a Zionist.”

For his sophomore, junior and senior years of college, he plans to study at Yeshiva University in New York, majoring in business. He chose Yeshiva so he would be able to learn more Talmud and live an Orthodox life. 

“You’re still in New York City, and you can have a lot of fun in the secular world, but you can also belong to your own Jewish community,” he said. 

After he graduates from Yeshiva, Schwartz wants to either pursue law, politics, or get into the medical device industry because they are professions he can use to better the planet. 

“Medical devices have always intrigued me,” he said. “Not only are you making money, but you’re saving lives in the country and the world that you live in.”

It’s Schwartz’s personal belief that everybody should try and make the world a better place, which is why he wants to do that through his career: “I think it’s important for people to contribute to society on whatever level they can.”

For more profiles of outstanding local graduates, go to jewishjournal.com/graduation.

Helping grads on their Jewish journey


As a Hillel director for the last seven years, I have come to love this time of year. Graduation is the moment to celebrate not just academic learning, but the personal growth and discovery students experience during their university years. Sitting among the friends and family watching the ceremonies, I can sense the feeling of optimism for what the future holds.  

As much as I share that excitement, I have a simultaneous feeling of anxiety and nervous energy — like a parent sending my children off into the world. For the last four years, when these students have needed a welcoming Shabbat dinner, a comfortable place to decompress or a supportive and compassionate ear, Hillel has been there to fill the need. All along the way, Hillel has worked with them, pushed, them, challenged them and supported them on their Jewish journeys. 

From now on, they’ll be on their own. It will be their job to create their own Jewish expression. If they want Shabbat dinner, they’ll have to make it. If they want to meet Jewish peers, they’ll need to make the effort. If they want to find Jewish learning, it’s up to them. If they want Jewish community, they’ll need to find it — or build it.  

But should it be that way? Shouldn’t the Jewish community make an active effort to welcome these young people, to embrace them, to connect them? So many Jewish opportunities exist for these graduates. But how to connect them? As a Hillel director, how can I hand off these graduates for the next stop of their Jewish journey? The organized Jewish world lacks such a mechanism. We need one. 

Every fall, I struggle with the same problem at the beginning of the college experience. I am always surprised to meet great numbers of new students who have been involved in youth groups or Jewish camps during high school, but who seem unaware of what Hillel does. And it’s rare for a rabbi, school administrator or camp director to make contact in advance to alert me of students bound for our campus. (Many private universities do share names of incoming Jewish students with Hillels and campus Chabads, but most public institutions are less forthcoming.)  

Throughout our lifetimes we move along a Jewish journey. We might begin with a preschool at our local synagogue and then participate in a youth group or attend a Jewish summer camp or attend a Jewish high school and then head off to college. The Jewish community invests countless resources in all these experiences, working to deepen Jewish identity. Where we fall short is in connecting them. How often do preschool directors actively communicate with day school principals, Jewish after-school programs, youth group directors and camp directors?  

It is a rare occurrence when I get an e-mail from a Jewish high school, youth group or summer camp director notifying me of the students bound for my campus. For those that have been active in our Jewish communities, don’t we owe it to them to make the transition to living a Jewish life on college campuses easier? And after they graduate, Hillels and Chabads should have routine methods for connecting graduates with local boards of rabbis, JCCs, Moishe houses and Jewish federations. In order to best serve our youth, we need to move from working in silos and understand this simple idea: The more we communicate and share information, the more vibrant our community will become.  

When we don’t, we create several problems. We invest so much money in Jewish teens and youth and then just hope for the best. It is a misuse of funds unless we do everything possible to ensure that Jewish youth make the transition to the next stop of their Jewish journey. Jewish campus life would be that much stronger if, every fall, campus Jewish professionals knew of Jewish student leaders who were starting college. On a merely practical level, knowing the different experiences of the variety of students attending campus in the fall would help Hillels plan accordingly and better serve students’ needs.  

I know that I am far from alone in this feeling. Every year at Hillel national conferences, directors and program professionals speak about the greater impact we could have if we knew the Jewish students coming to our campuses. We could be proactive and reach out to them to welcome them to campus, to let them know we are here to ease the transition, and to continue their Jewish journeys.  

Of course, these kinds of contacts happen in small and episodic ways, but what we lack is a central, strategic solution. At a minimum, Jewish summer camps, Jewish day schools, youth groups, Hebrew High schools, synagogues or any Jewish organization supporting Jewish youth should actively work to connect students with their local Hillel or Chabad. They rarely do.

Just recently, an educator at a local Jewish high school phoned to ask if I would come speak to his graduating seniors about Jewish life on campus. If only this weren’t an anomaly but rather part of my regular spring schedule. The work in May and June for all Hillel professionals should be meeting with Jewish students graduating high schools across the country.  

Just imagine if every Jewish student in the country received a welcome letter from the Jewish community on his or her college campus. How much more meaningful and easy might the transition be? And imagine if communities reached out to every new university graduate headed their way. Then, attending future graduations, I could watch the graduates cross the stage, excited about their futures, and filled with confidence and assurance that the students whose lives I touched would continue their Jewish journeys and continue to enrich the Jewish world.

Outstanding Graduates 2013


Every year, we shine a spotlight on a group of outstanding high school seniors, culled from many nominations submitted by local educators, clergy, community leaders and, of course, you, our readers. And each year we find that the real difficulty is not in identifying those with spectacular accomplishments, but in choosing among the enormously talented graduating teens around us.

But, choose we did. And, once again, this year’s group has shown an impeccable ability to change the world — on a scale both small and large. They have not only shown the value of excellence in academics, but they have proven the importance of making a difference in the lives of others. They have reached out to those with special needs; counseled teens struggling with life’s challenges; brought joy to others through the arts; taken the reins of an international Jewish youth organization; blazed a trail on the gridiron; planned dinners at a shelter for mentally disabled homeless women; found a voice on Huffington Post; and gone running to do good. They discovered their life’s passions — drama, music, athletics, Judaism, politics — and harnessed them to inspire others. 

Just imagine what they’ll do as adults.

 

Ruth Maouda
Putting the pieces together

 

Gabe Freeman
A leading player

 

Michael Sacks
Leading the way

 

Sepora Makabeh
Using gift of gab for good

 

Rose Bern
A passionate voice

 

Rachel Arditi
Family inspiration

 

Sam Lyons
Finding his voice

 

Raphi Heldman
Lessons on the run

 

Joelle Milman
Transforming herself

 

Daniel Schwartz
Grad’s goal: A better world

 
 

AJR-CA graduates 10th class of transdenominational rabbis


The Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), graduated its 10th class of rabbinic and cantorial ordinees last month. The transdenominational seminary has graduated close to 90 rabbis, cantors and chaplains since 2003, and nearly all have found work in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-denominational synagogues, as well as in schools, hospitals and other institutions. Many of the graduates of AJR-CA, based at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA, came to the academy after full careers in other fields.

Five rabbis and one cantor were ordained June 10 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. They are: Rabbi David Baron, who will continue his primary work in the high-tech industry, while also writing a midrashic novel and providing spiritual guidance in the San Diego Jewish community; Rabbi Lisa Bock, who will serve as rabbi of Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo; Rabbi Elihu Moshe Gevirtz, who will be an educator at Camp Ramah in California’s organic agriculture program; Rabbi Susan Beaglehole Goldberg, who will continue to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, and as Eastside Outreach Coordinator for Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Rabbi Yisraela Sherwood Tubman, who will be the chaplain at Hallmark West Hills Assisted Living; and
Cantor Frances N. Burgess, who will be the music director at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Opinion: Finishing school


I remember my kindergarten graduation. We wore crowns on our heads and had big smiles on our faces. We sang songs, cute songs about the changing seasons and growing up. And then we received our diplomas, had an ice cream party and were hugged and kissed by our loved ones.

It was a traditional early childhood graduation, replayed over and over, year after year, in almost every school.

But then, I didn’t grow up in the Palestinian Authority or Gaza.

Traditions are different in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. In Gaza this graduation season like in years past, three, four and five year old children marked their big day with ceremonies depicting Palestinians becoming martyrs and by dressing up as Israelis who torture Palestinian men, women and children. Certainly, an educational message was being presented, as it should be at every graduation, but not a positive message. Here it is a message of murder.

These young Palestinian graduates performed plays about slaughter, marched with weapons and wore traditional bandanas. They sang songs of love and they glorified murder. No Palestinian graduation from pre-school through high school is complete without stories, performances and songs about the killing of Israelis.

It is a part of the general Palestinian curriculum and it is a major theme at graduation time. In one school a teacher was quoted as saying: “At every kindergarten graduation ceremony we focus on the children to represent the role of struggling and resistance in the way of Allah so they will grow up to love the resistance and serve the cause of Palestine and Holy Jihad, as well as to make them leaders and fighters to defend the holy soil of Palestine.” That same school’s kindergarten director took it even further: “It is our obligation to educate the children to love the resistance, Palestine and Jerusalem, so they will recognize the importance of Palestine and who its enemy is.”

Even at a tender age, the message is not lost on the students. In their own, translated, words from Ynet we hear children saying: “When I grow up I’ll join Islamic Jihad and the al-Quds Brigades. I’ll fight the Zionist enemy and fire missiles at it until I die as a shahid and join my father in heaven.’ And: “I love the resistance and the martyrs and Palestine, and I want to blow myself up on Zionists and kill them on a bus in a suicide bombing.”

That’s just one example. The internet and Youtube are full of other examples, some posted by media outlets like Ynet, others posted with pride by Hamas and by general Palestinian Authority sources.

Kindergartens in Gaza are sponsored by Islamic Jihad. But it would be wrong and narrow minded to believe that only Hamas and Islamic Jihad engage in this kind of war mongering cum education, wrong to think that only they transmit this hateful educational message. PA sponsored schools in the West Bank are on board with Muslim extremists when it comes to glorifying resistance and martyrdom – catch phrases for murderous attacks against Israelis and Jews. It is a part of their curriculum, too, it is enshrined in their school books.

Israelis teach about peace and coexistence as a formal part of their curriculum. But for the Palestinian educator, it is easier to teach hatred than to talk about peace. Idealizing mass murderers and calling them defenders packs much more emotional punch than does talk about co-existence. And when Palestinian children march with toy guns and accompany mock coffins, when during their ceremonies they play ‘Kidnap an Israeli Soldier’ they are cheered on by older children they admire and by adults they respect.

It is hardly education. It is indoctrination. And what happens when these educational goals and objectives are challenged? What happens to the

Palestinian family that does not think that the only good Israeli is a dead Israeli? They are labeled as collaborators, as people who have sold their heritage for money. They often have to seek refuge and sanctuary outside the Palestinian Authority, they are no longer welcome within.

Graduations, we are told, do not signify the end, they embrace a new beginning. We do not conclude, we commence. How frightening.


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Letters to the Editor: Foie Gras ban, JCC closures, being a mensch


Praise for Ban on Foie Gras

In the June 8 Graduation section, I read about an 18-year-old young lady who helps rehabilitate abused horses and is moving into a nursing program with the goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon (“Healing Others, and Herself”). I am so proud of our community and its compassionate heritage.

On the other hand, I am appalled to read on the “Foodaism” page, regarding the ban of foie gras, that several chefs claimed “the ducks like to be engorged,” thus defending cruelty by claiming the victims enjoy it (“Duck Liver and the Sixth Taste,” June 8).

The article also tells us chefs “resent being told by non-chefs what they can and can’t serve.” Chefs don’t like to be force-fed rules? Ducks and geese don’t like to have pipes rammed down their throats two or three times daily to be pumped so full that some have died from ruptured organs and others can barely stand due to their engorged livers. Two rescued from a leading foie gras producer were being eaten alive by rats because they could not move.

Hats off to California! Welcome, and long live the ban.

Marilyn Russell
Los Angeles

Closure of JCCs Is a Real Loss

As someone who until last week worked at the Milken JCC building for the Jewish Free Loan Association, I was witness to the demise of the vibrant programs for seniors and the nursery school. Those children represent our future no less than the jFed generation (“Fueling the jFed Generation,” June 1). That Federation could have saved the JCCs and chose not to breaks my heart. Travel to any city, especially smaller ones, and the JCCs are the communal center for people of all ages in the community. How sad that a city like ours cannot boast of thriving Jewish centers.

I am happy that New Community Jewish High School will have a beautiful new home, but what a price our community has paid. Whether it is the fault of the JCCs or Federation is really irrelevant. We should be embarrassed and ashamed by all of this.

Pearl Taylor
Sherman Oaks

First, Be a Mensch

The article “Dear Graduates” (June 1) by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb was wonderful. Notwithstanding his sagacious advice to new graduates, I would add one other thought: The ultimate degree or appellation that one can earn is “mensch” — a title that “good Jews” strive to attain their entire lives. The benefits and rewards of earning the title mensch far outweigh any degree awarded by any educational institution.

Michael Waterman
Encino

Building a diplomatic resume at home, abroad


David Shalom

YULA Boys High School

Going to: Yeshivat Orayta/University of Texas at Austin

David Shalom wants to broker a final status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. While this goal may seem lofty, the YULA student has already taken big steps in pursuit of this dream.

Politics and music have been the two main ingredients in Shalom’s life, but as he looks ahead to college, he says politics and diplomacy will take center stage.

“I feel excited about the future, to study politics and to start my life in college, but in graduating I also feel like I have already accomplished a lot so far,” he said.

Shalom got his first taste of political life taking part in model U.N. conferences at Shalhevet School and interning for state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). He then transferred to YULA Boys High School in 10th grade, where he was accepted into a five-week political advocacy program in Israel called The Jerusalem Journey: Ambassadors. Shalom said this was where his passion for diplomacy began.

“On my summer program in Israel, I learned a lot about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

Shalom turned his passion into his work when he set up “Israel Advocacy,” a course he teaches to 50 YULA students.

“When I was in Israel, I was trained to be an ambassador. I learned so many things I thought everyone else could learn, too. I have a skill to move things forward, and I will always try to make use of this skill in my work.”

Recognizing the barriers that impede peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shalom decided to break down one of his own: language. Taking a night class in Arabic at Santa Monica College in his senior year, Shalom’s perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict broadened immensely when he became friends with a Palestinian in his class.

“I took this class with a lot of Arabs, and … I realized that they were like me and wanted the same things I want: peace for the Israeli-Palestinian region,” he said.

Shalom thinks peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible — given the right leaders on both sides.

“When you look back at history, all it takes is leaders on both sides who can galvanize their people toward peace. With bold leadership, courage and bilateral negotiations, peace can be achieved,” he said.

Shalom will spend the next year with Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City before going on to study international relations and global studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

A real page-turner


Corinne Kentor may be coming of age in the iPad and Kindle era, but she feels most at home surrounded by books. The more classic the volumes, the better. It’s “Candide” and “Don Quixote” that thrill this New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) senior, who lights up when she discusses the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters.

“I wrote my college essay on why our house is like a library,” said Kentor, 17, who will leave her Bell Canyon abode this fall to study English literature at Yale University. “There’s a stocked section for each kind of literature.”

Kentor also traced her literary passion to influential teachers in San Fernando Valley public schools, including Round Meadow Elementary School librarian Carole Farhit. “She was this tiny woman, but with a deep, raspy English-accented voice—it was perfect for storytelling. I used to have lunch with her in the library.”

In her years at NCJHS, Kentor immersed herself in languages, achieving fluency in Spanish and studying Hebrew. At Yale, she said, she plans to continue her Hebrew studies and explore Arabic. She’s dabbled in English poetry and even attempted a novel as part of a “NaNo-WriMo” project—for National Novel Writing Month, in November. Spanish teacher Raquel Safdie and AP English teacher Michelle Lindner have called Kentor’s writing university-level work.

“I want to be an English professor someday,” Kentor said. “I also really want to be an author—I feel most at home in prose.” The senior honed her editing and coaching skills this school year by shepherding the young school’s first newspaper, The Prowler. She and her co-editor, Jason Tinero, helped boost the paper’s staff to 17 students and published five issues—all on extracurricular time.

“I’m really, really proud,” Kentor said. “The quality of the writing has changed and developed so much. I feel proud every time I get to hand out the paper—it reflects the spirit of the school.”

Kentor, who chose between Stanford University and Yale, credits her stellar grades to a deep love of school, “which I know is not that normal.” Never a procrastinator, she learned time management in elementary school when she balanced long practice hours for rhythmic gymnastics with homework.

An injury in eighth grade ended her gymnastics career but led Kentor to another graceful passion: yoga. “It gave me the physical stimulation without the competitiveness, which I hate.” She recently earned her teaching certification and started leading Hatha/Vinyasa flow groups at InnerPower Yoga in Woodland Hills. Kentor said she’s eager to join the “Yogis at Yale” group and continue teaching. “Yoga gives me a community wherever I go.”

And what’s a bookworm to do with her last West Coast summer? Her very creative family, including mom Adrienne, dad Eric and older sister Nikki—an intern with local circus troupe Dream World Cirque—are planning a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To family and friends, Kentor may then quote the Bard: “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Sometimes, less is more


In her junior year, Oakwood senior Katherine Bernstein spent two weeks in Sierra Leone with the North Hollywood school’s immersion program. Amid carrying buckets of cement for a new school and helping to paint a map of the world in its library, she was struck by a major difference between life in Southern California and the West African nation.

“I was expecting to go there and have some depressing, transformative experience. Like, one that makes you appreciate what you have. And it was transformative, but not in that way,” the 17-year-old said.

She was surprised to find that people seemed happier there than they are here, despite the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing.

The people she worked with in Sierra Leone focused on people rather than things, Bernstein said, and she was taken aback by how much attention the people she visited with in Sierra Leone gave to her when she spoke, making her realize how distracted people often are in the United States.

Children followed Bernstein’s classmates wherever they went and got excited when the American students learned to count to 10 in their language, Mende. The children also made toys out of water bottles or whatever else they could find, Bernstein said.

“I think people here have an expectation of having things. I remember in middle school, people used to break their phones to get news ones. It’s never enough,” she said.

Bernstein graduates from Oakwood with a 4.42 grade-point average, having taken four AP classes in the past year: human geography, physics C, English and Spanish. She refers to her number theory and cryptology classes as “really cool.”

Judaism’s emphasis on education has had a large impact on her. “There’s an attitude in my family about education—that it’s very important to know about the world,” she said.

Bernstein will attend Stanford University in the fall, and she is considering studying medicine.

Outside of school, Bernstein has volunteered with L.A. Family Housing for several hours every week since middle school. This organization aids families in transitioning out of homelessness and severe poverty. As a volunteer, Bernstein helps the children in the program with art projects and homework.

A piano player for most of her life, she taught one boy piano through the program and is now trying to collect musical instruments and compile a music library for the center.

“I love working with kids,” Bernstein said. “I probably want to do something with kids in the future. I really like spending my time that way. I feel like I’ve developed over the years as a teacher.”

It’s all about the kids


When his late grandmother was first diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago, Jason Aftalion was moved by the volunteers who visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I was so touched by how they talked to her and spent time with her, so she wouldn’t be lonely,” said Aftalion, a Persian-American senior at Milken Community High School.

Aftalion was inspired to sign up as a volunteer, drawing on “the Jewish values of tikkun olam, or repairing the world,” he said. After a six-month application process, the then-15-year-old was assigned to work at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. He still spends four hours visiting patients each Saturday.

Aftalion, 18, still remembers a young heart patient named Michael who loved pirates. He delivered a toy pirate ship to the boy and spent an hour and a half playing with the delighted child. “He was going through more than I’ve ever been through in my entire life, and he could still have fun,” Aftalion said, marveling at the boy. “It meant so much for me to see how excited he was.”

For his summer-school project at USC’s business school, Aftalion co-founded a nonprofit organization, curechildren.org, which aims to buy a breathing machine for a children’s hospital, among other goals. He kick-started the fundraising by working as a private children’s sports coach, drawing on expertise gleaned as a captain and “most valuable player” on Milken’s basketball and track and field teams.

Back at school, he helped rekindle Milken’s waning Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, quadrupling student volunteers. As a mentor himself, he said, he’d “try to give advice and moral perspective. It was amazing when kids really opened up and talked about their lives.”

For all of his activism, Aftalion has been honored on a “Cool Kids” segment on KABC and on “The Young Icons” program on KTLA; he’s also received a $1,000 scholarship and a citation from the Los Angeles mayor’s office. This fall he’ll attend USC and hopes eventually to combine his passion for kids and business by serving as the president of a children’s hospital. “My Jewish values will help me to become the person I want to be,” he said.

A song in his soul


Quinn Lohmann closes his eyes and tilts his head slightly. His fingers find their place between the frets of his guitar, and his voice rings out, soft and crystal clear.

“We all got a life to live. We all got a gift to give. …”

Lohmann stops mid-strum. “I need to tune,” he says, as he twists the keys on the head of his guitar.

Lohmann, who has autism, also has perfect pitch, and he knows when the sound is just right.

“Open up your heart and let it out,” he continues.

Lohmann’s mother, Kathy Finn, said he started playing tunes on the piano by ear when he was 3, so she started him on music therapy, and he quickly excelled at piano and, later, guitar. Finn decided to have Lohmann, who had some severe behavioral issues, study for a bar mitzvah, and with the help of Cantor Steven Puzarne, founder of Vision of Wholeness, Lohmann led the entire service and chanted the whole portion at his bar mitzvah at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

In fact, Lohmann continues to chant Torah at Temple Akiba in Culver City, as well as at other congregations, and at Nes Gadol, the Jewish studies program at Vista Del Mar that he has been a part of for many years.

He’s also a song leader at Nes Gadol, and fills that role at Camp Ramah in the summers, as well.

For many summers Lohmann attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer, where he thrilled in enjoying a typical summer with typical kids. He loves to play baseball, basketball—and at a lanky 6-foot-2, he’s pretty good on the court—ride his bike and swim. He went on a NFTY Reform youth group Israel trip without additional support.

Lohmann, who is 19, graduated Village Glen School last year, but stayed on for a yearlong transition program where he worked at the school cafe, and learned job and life skills.

Next year, he’ll be attending Pathway, a program at UCLA Extension where adults with special needs take classes at the university and learn to live independently.

Lohmann would like to continue with his music, perhaps studying to be a cantor or a song leader in a synagogue.

While Lohmann’s conversation and social skills are somewhat stilted—he mostly responds to questions with short answers—the song he chooses to sing tells the story for him.

It is “B’tzelem Elohim,” “In God’s Image,” by Dan Nichols, and Lohmann learned it at camp.

“We all got a peace to bring. We all got a song to sing.

Just open your heart and let it out. …

We all got a mountain to climb. We all got a truth to find.

Just open your heart and let it out. …”

Taking her role(s) seriously


Disguised as an elderly woman in czarist Russia, Sheridan Pierce took the stage at Brentwood School. As the bright lights touched her face and the character took over her body, Pierce poured her heart into her role, and she realized that she was meant to act. 

The play was “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Pierce, a ninth-grader at the time, was playing Yente the matchmaker. The significance of the role, she said, was her connection with the character on a more personal level. “Deep in my soul, I’m already a little old Jewish lady,” she joked.

With leading roles in 12 of her 15 school plays, a role in a film directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and most recently at Lincoln Center with Brentwood’s Concert Singers, Pierce is certainly an accomplished performer. “I really like to become a character,” she explained.

Pierce also fosters a passion for improvisation and stand-up, participating in The Second City Teen Troupe and The Groundlings. Focused on her desire to make people laugh, Pierce has set her eyes on her ultimate goal: to someday be on “Saturday Night Live.”

Pierce also contributes comedic essays to one of the three Brentwood publications she writes for, and writes Spanish poetry for a foreign-language publication.

Pierce combines her acting and writing career with a commitment to community service. Working tirelessly with organizations such as the Special Olympics, SOVA, Operation Gratitude, TreePeople and the Los Angeles Public Library Teen Council, Pierce has received numerous awards for her service. Pierce’s interest in bettering the community, she said, is motivated by her love of “working together with a lot of people for one goal.”

Despite the additional challenge of a strenuous course load, Pierce managed to find time in each of the last four years to hold positions in student government. “I just wanted to make a difference in my school, and I knew that was the best way to do it,” she said.

She has continued to strive for more responsibility, ultimately landing the highest elected position at her school, that of prefect, during her senior year. She has also earned the positions of arts chair, homecoming/assembly chair, technology liaison and charity coffeehouse chair/host, as well as a seat on the Honor Board.

Talking to Pierce is like watching a Ron Popeil infomercial—at the end of every sentence you find yourself thinking, “But wait, there’s more!” And after a conversation with Pierce, one thing becomes clear: She is always driven to act. Whether on stage as a character or within her community as a leader, Pierce pours her heart into every role she takes on.

“I’m definitely not a lazy person,” she joked. “I like to set a lot of goals for myself, and there is so much I want to do in my life. I just really get inspired to do the most that I can at an early age.”

Graduation: Shining stars – our list of outstanding graduating seniors


Each year, we profile a group of outstanding high school seniors, culled from the many nominations sent in by you, our readers. And each year, we find it almost impossible to choose among the many extraordinary leaders, givers and enormously talented graduating teens.

But, choose we did. And, once again, the members of this year’s group know no limits in their quests for excellence and impact. They have given tirelessly of their time as mentors, tutors and sports coaches; helped families transition out of homelessness and poverty; participated in building a school in Sierra Leone; worked to prevent genocide; organized interfaith picnics; and founded an advocacy project to prevent drunken driving. They found their passions — drama, music, writing, languages, politics, business — and harnessed them to inspire others.

Just imagine what they’ll do as adults.

Sheridan Pierce
Taking her role(s) seriously


Quinn Lohmann
A song in his soul


Jason Aftalion
It’s all about the kids


Katherine Bernstein
Sometimes, less is more


Corinne Kentor
A real page-turner


David Shalom
Building a diplomatic resume at home, abroad

Marissa Meyer
Healing others, and herself


Leah Gluck
Working toward ‘never again’


Brian Hertz
Turning tragedy into prevention


Leila Miller
Finding common ground


Jacob Cohen
Giving himself a sporting chance


Eeman Khorramian
Dual identity yields an international outlook

Giving himself a sporting chance


“Yeah, those years of seventh to ninth grade were not the greatest years for Jacob Cohen,” Jacob Cohen says, trying to bring a little levity to a pretty grueling litany.

In seventh grade, Cohen had a terrible cough and breathing problems that kept him in and out of the hospital, and school, for a good six months. It took a few years for him to feel fully healthy again.

In ninth grade, Cohen’s whole life changed. He came home from grocery shopping with his mother one day and found his father dead, felled by a stroke.

His father had been Cohen’s closest confidant, and his death followed closely the death of Cohen’s grandmother, with whom he was also close. But after some months, Cohen said, he made the decision not to pity himself.

“I knew if I were to sit and sulk all day, I wouldn’t be able to enhance myself to get further in life. So I’ve been able to move on because I know that is what my dad would want,” Cohen said.

He threw himself into his schoolwork, and in 11th and 12th grade earned a 4.0 grade-point average. He also immersed himself in journalism, specifically sports writing. This past year, he was editor-in-chief of the Taft Tribune, where he revamped the look of the paper and wrote frequently about school district budget cuts — including cuts to the newspaper.

Cohen will major in journalism at the University of Oregon, but he hopes to eventually go into sports marketing.

Cohen plays on the Taft water polo team and enjoys playing and commenting on all sports. He worked as a college peer counselor, where he introduced students to the guidance counseling office. Some of the students he mentored had not been considering college at all but now will be applying, Cohen said.

He has also worked as a tutor, helping kids with math and other subjects. He’s saved a lot of that money, since he knows paying for college will be a burden for his mom.

Cohen has had to step up in other ways, too — finding rides, because his dad used to take him to school, and making sure to be helpful around the house. But he still refuses to sulk.

“I look back on it now, and all those things made me what I am today,” Cohen said. “It made me a stronger person.”

Dual identity yields an international outlook


Eeman Khorramian could see himself entering the political world. The Palisades Charter High School senior has been highly active in school affairs and with the school’s student government since ninth grade. His leadership skills even earned him the position of student body president.

Following the Iran election protests in 2009, Khorramian co-founded a campus chapter of Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a secular nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Khorramian said being Iranian-American has made him internationally aware, and he confessed to having an addiction to world news.

“I tend to follow BBC and international coverage rather than just American news, which focuses on domestic issues. I don’t just follow Iranian issues; the disaster in Syria and the Arab Spring really caught my attention, too,” he said.

The articulate 18-year-old said growing up Iranian and Jewish has been one of his biggest challenges so far.

“Being Iranian and Jewish has definitely been the hardest thing for me to figure out. It’s very difficult to be Iranian and proud to be an Iranian, and be Jewish and being proud of being a Jew. I’m very much in touch with both sides, and I am proud of both, and neither takes away from the other.”

Khorramian, who is graduating in the top 2 percent of his class, said studying subjects that allow him to put in his full effort is very important to him.

“I try to challenge myself in the subjects I choose, and my school has allowed me to have an interdisciplinary education,” he said. “I’ve also gotten the chance to work on leadership here.”

Khorramian is not getting sentimental about leaving high school for UCLA, but he does have a lot of praise for the education he received.

“I hear a lot of people talk about leaving in a negative sense, but I’m ready to leave,” Khorramian said. “I feel like my high school has given me everything I need to be ready for college, so I’m looking forward to this next step in my education.”

His credentials suggest a career in politics, but Khorramian isn’t rushing the decision. He’s put his major down as “undecided.”

“I’m just really looking forward to going to UCLA, and I feel like my education is just beginning,” he said excitedly. “I love biology, and I could see myself being a doctor. But I’m also fascinated by international relations. If I could find a way to merge the two as a career, that would be perfect.”

Turning tragedy into prevention


Agoura High School senior Brian Hertz was shaken when a student at New Community Jewish High School died in a car accident in February 2010.

“I was just shocked because it was so awful,” he said.

Adir Vered was killed when the vehicle he was traveling in crashed into a parked car. At the time, the student was not wearing his seatbelt and had his head stuck out of an open window. Police said no drugs or alcohol were involved.

Hertz attended middle school with Adir, and although they were not close friends, the death still shook him.

The accident became a catalyst for X-Out Drunk Driving Day — an advocacy project Hertz co-founded as part of an assignment for his social-action class at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

On June 8, X-Out Drunk Driving Day participants mark the back of their hands with Xs — a pledge “to not drive under the influence and to prevent other people from driving under the influence,” Hertz said.

L.A. Hebrew High has taught Hertz the importance of community, which has informed his belief that “we should all care for and respect each other,” he said.

“As a community, we should work together to fight [drunken driving],” he said.

More than 4,000 people made pledges during X-Out’s first year in 2010, encouraging Hertz to continue running the annual project.

Gearing up for this year’s effort, Hertz remains passionate about the campaign against drinking and driving, but he acknowledges that it’s difficult to get people to pay attention.

“You have to work hard to get people to listen to you, even if you’re saying something true,” he said.

Erica Solomon, Hertz’s Jewish civics teacher at L.A. Hebrew High and his adviser on the X-Out project, refers to him as a “compassionate” mentor and “leader.” 

“He understands that to make a difference in the world, one must invest of themselves and stay the course,” she said.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Hertz was a member of Agoura High School’s track team, and since his freshman year, he’s been a regular with the school’s ComedySportz team, a competitive improvisational comedy-training program.

“I like to be able to think on my feet,” he said, explaining his passion for improv.

This fall, Hertz will attend UCLA, where he plans to study biochemistry to prepare for a career in medicine.

“[I have] wanted to be a doctor since I was little,” he said. Last year, Hertz spent a day shadowing his uncle, an emergency room physician. “It was the coolest experience,” Hertz said excitedly.

For now, he has plenty to keep him occupied, with X-Out day approaching, graduation around the corner and making time for friends.

“Somehow I end up keeping myself busy,” he said.

Finding common ground


Shalhevet journalism teacher Joelle Keene says that Leila Miller, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, has set a high standard for journalism, integrity and optimism amid complex human relations.

“[She is] wise enough to know that real differences among people do exist, [but] she has set out on a personal mission to work through them to communities’ common humanity,” she said.

A Quill and Scroll award-winning writer, 17-year-old Miller has penned several stories about Jewish communities in other countries. She contacted Jewish sources in Japan last year to interview them about the earthquake and tsunami. She also published an article about the strategies and organizations that
Mexican Jews use to cope with violence in their country.

“It’s been really interesting meeting these people all over the world that I would not have been able to meet otherwise,” Miller said. “And I learned a lot about them.”

Miller’s writing also recognizes that geographic barriers are not the only obstacles to interaction between communities. She wrote an article about Muslim teenagers in Los Angeles and the difficulties they faced attending public schools—from balancing religion and heritage to interacting with misinformed classmates and teachers. She was happy to discover that the girls she interviewed had taped a copy of the article to the youth-group bulletin board at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The ties Miller made while writing about the Muslim teenagers extended beyond the publication of her article when she decided to organize an interfaith picnic. In May 2011,

11 students from Shalhevet met with 33 teens from the Islamic Center’s youth group. The picnic was such a success that a second one was organized.

Miller said she hoped the picnics would help dispel the preconceptions between communities, which do not often interact. “They were primarily social events for kids to ask questions about each other,” she said.

Miller has experience balancing multiple cultures in her own life. Born in Argentina and fluent in Spanish, she has returned to Argentina every summer since she was young. She worked with the Tzedaká Foundation in Buenos Aires during the summer after her sophomore year, and the following summer she worked as an assistant teacher in English classes at Escuela Martín Buber.

Miller has played classical piano since she was 7, and is currently the accompanist for her school’s choir.

Miller plans to attend Oberlin College next fall. She wants to “keep an open mind and take a wide variety of classes,” but is considering studying English or creative writing, she said.

Keene said Miller is “a kind of ambitious humanist, someone who has never seen a challenge she doesn’t think can be solved by working harder, or a problem that can’t be solved by some dialogue and a smile.”

Healing others, and herself


Almost every day, Marissa Meyer, an 18-year-old senior at Agoura High School, heads out to the stable where her riding teacher rehabilitates abused horses. There she works with her 15-year-old gelding, Lucky. Helping to heal him after his difficult life at a dude ranch has been one of her passions for the last seven years and has also helped spur her interest in physical therapy and sports medicine in humans.

This fall, she’ll attend UCLA’s student nursing program with the hope of eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. “Instead of going straight to medical school, nursing will allow me to learn to build relationships with patients and interface with staff, which will help me become a better doctor,” she said.

Meyer has honed her leadership skills by serving on the board of Congregation Or Ami’s youth group, where she created a Passover-in-the-wilderness service, and also through the United States Youth Volleyball League, where she’s in charge of training 25 adult coaches.

Meanwhile, she’s maintained a 4.2 grade-point average despite a number of health issues, including surgery to remove an extra electrical passageway in her heart that had left her dizzy and weak for months several years ago. In 2011, Meyer cut a tendon in her right hand, rendering it useless for a time during her most difficult academic year. Undaunted, she took classroom notes with her left hand and even took the SAT with her hand in a splint. An emergency appendectomy last summer didn’t prevent her from leaving for two East Coast camps — one a medical leadership program, another on sports medicine — five days later. 

“I was in pain because it was hard to walk and stand,” Meyer said, “but nevertheless, it was a very rewarding experience.”

Her own medical issues have only solidified her desire to become a physician. “It’s amazing how the body isn’t just stagnant but constantly changing and healing itself,” she said.

Working toward ‘never again’


Milken Community High School senior Leah Gluck is dedicated to raising awareness about genocide, even though it seems so distant and unsolvable.

“I think it’s an issue that really is very far away for a lot of people at my school … and I think that it’s important,” Gluck said.

Since her freshman year, the 18-year-old has worked with Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit that focuses on preventing genocide and mass atrocities across the globe as well as engaging individuals and communities to take action locally.

Gluck recently co-created an exhibition, “From Darkness to Light,” set in Milken’s beit midrash, spotlighting the genocide in Darfur and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Gluck planned the exhibition over the course of nearly five months and built the displays during a 15-hour marathon. Student docents led their peers through “From Darkness to Light,” which featured video interviews with victims, photographs of refugee camps, drawings made by children living in camps, and an “action center” where students pledged to become involved with JWW.

For the exhibition’s culmination, Gluck led an effort that consisted of Milken’s entire student body calling the White House at once to discuss Sudan. “That was super cool,” she said.

Gluck has put her design skills to use as head editor of Milken’s yearbook, serving as the point person for section editors and student staff members.

She also spends considerable time in the water, as a member of Milken’s water polo and swim teams. This summer, she plans to work as a lifeguard at Camp Ramah.

Outside of her JWW advocacy, Gluck gets her tikkun olam fix volunteering with KOREH L.A., an organization that helps young students develop their reading abilities, and she spends every Shabbat supervising young children of adult congregants at B’nai David-Judea, leading them in davening, play time and various activities.

This fall, Gluck will attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she might pursue her interest in psychology.

For now, she has enough on her plate to keep her busy.

“I’m just used to not getting home until 7,” she said.

The commencement speech I would deliver


Having recently attended the college graduation of our middle child, I could not stop thinking what I might have said if given the opportunity to offer the commencement address. Here are five thoughts.

1) Continue to learn and teach

At the moment you were born—whether conscience of it or not—all of you have always been both students and teachers.  As children you were the consummate student, constantly learning from others, patterning and comparing yourselves to those around you.

At the same time, you have always been teachers. Beginning as babies, you taught your parents and family about the preciousness of life and the awe-inspiring responsibility of raising a child simply by your being.  Whether you know it or not, you’ve taught them about themselves, as they observed you and worked with you.  In addition, starting early on in your lives, you taught and influenced your friends the result of your reactions, your likes and dislikes.

As you leave the cocoon that is the college environment, all of you students, formally become teachers.  You have learned well and no doubt will continue to learn, now go out and share; share in such a way that brings pride to the true spirit of learning.  That is learning not merely for learning’s sake, but learning to help make the world better.  Learning to give to others, not to gloat over your degree or your school’s namesake.

2)  Develop and maintain a humble soul.

All of you feel a great sense of accomplishment; you’ve worked hard.  But it’s expected that you work hard and make sacrifices in college.  College is not summer camp, contrary to some; it is not a Club Med.  If anything, being in college should be seen as a supreme gift.  All of you metaphorically stand on the shoulders of the generations that have come before you and have built this school and this great nation of ours.  College is not an entitlement, is not a right.  If anything, college is a supreme privilege.

By now you should know; some students wishing to attend a particular school have been turned down for reasons that are unclear. The truth is, students get into some schools without expecting to, others are both surprised and hurt by not getting into the school’s they assumed they would.  Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why that is.

A humble soul knows and a prudent mind understands that some things in life come about due to luck or randomness.  Even if you worked hard through grade school and did well on college entrance exams and finally got accepted to the school of your choice, you’re lucky to have had other things given to you allowing you to succeed in that way.

So, keep a humble perspective not only for what you’ve accomplished, but also just as important, what you have been given.

3)   Include God/Godliness in your life.

Embrace a religious; God based worldview, not an undisciplined spirituality that blows with the wind—subject to caprice and fad. College is a secular institution—it is not a seminary where you’d expect to grapple with such ideas. But with a notion of God, you will live a more balanced and enriched life.  You will handle failures better and you will understand and appreciate success more.

Most importantly understand: Without God, ultimate morality cannot exist.  An objective standard of morality is dependent on their being a God who, in theory at least, set a moral standard that is independent of culture, race, ethnicity and geography.  That is not to say a life filled with God will guarantee morality, unfortunately—it will not.

Furthermore, God is not a crutch, or an inane caricature.  God is a concept, if not a reality, that is serious and necessary, important and challenging.  Whether you accept the notion of God, don’t dumb down the role God can play by applying silly superstitions and simplistic logic and thought.  With all the questions you posed while in college, ponder this:  The most important question one can possibly ask is whether God exists?

4)  Don’t be fearful

Go out and take some risks.  There is an obsession with health and above all, safety.  Don’t be afraid.  So many things as of late have become a source of fear, the environment, food, and the economy.  Enough! Go live.  Some parent’s think it is their duty to raise children.  That’s only partially correct.  The duty of responsible parents is to raise adults.  You are arguably at a point in your life where you are the most resilient you’ll ever be.  Take some chances. Learn to fail and you’ll learn to succeed.  A successful person has failed many more times than one deemed a failure.  If not now, when?

5) Enjoy the journey

Life goes so fast.  Notice I said life goes so fast, not time. Time is a human convention.  We’ve invented and formatted time to help us function and literally “navigate” through life.  But there is no such thing as time per-se.  A waste of time is more emphatically, a waste of life.  Don’t think of life only in terms of goals to be accomplished, appointments met. In your haste to get a job, choose a spouse, pay off a debt (including student loans), take a breath and reorient yourself so as to savor the journey as much as, if not more than the goal.

One last thought.  Sadly, for many of you, college will be the high point of your life—I truly hope that it is not.  I hope it was a positive experience, one that you can look back on fondly.  But like the Bible’s description of Seraphs (mystical creatures) wielding fiery batons at the entrance of the Garden of Eden preventing man and woman from ever returning after they were expelled, you too can never return.  But that’s not a bad thing.  It is the story’s allegorical way of saying: grow up and stand on your own, leave your comfort zone—become an adult.

And so it is with all of you—it’s now time to move on.  Move on and grow.  Contrary to popular opinion, college was real. Every experience we witness is real and life is not an illusion, or a test run. But college is only a few years in a lifetime of accumulated experiences, ongoing challenges and adventures.  Now go out and continue to learn and to teach and in the process, above all, go out and make your life a masterpiece.

Michael Gotlieb is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica, CA

NASA is her dream


When Barbara Schloss joined the robotics team at Milken Community High School as a sophomore, she knew she had found her passion.

“It’s so fun,” said Schloss, whose father and grandfather, both of whom work in the aeronautics industry, encouraged her interest in math and science from a young age.

Now that she’s about to graduate, she said, her dream is to continue exploring the fields of engineering and aerospace, eventually working at NASA. And if her time at Milken is any indication, she’s well on her way.

Schloss’ first year on the Milken robotics team was spent learning the ropes, she said. In her senior year, she served as the head of the team, overseeing working groups and leading her peers as they built what she described as the “best robot we’ve ever made” for their third year of participation in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

Designed to pick up inflatable game pieces and place them on pegs, the robot also deployed a minibot that successfully climbed a pole. Schloss described how her team used pneumatics — “air-powered things,” she patiently explained — and mecanum drives, which are wheels that can move in all directions, to put together a final product that would wow the judges.

It wasn’t the first time she sought to shine a spotlight on the group’s capabilities. As a junior, Schloss turned her formidable energy toward marketing and outreach. She wanted to spread the word, she said, about how easy it can be to set up a robotics program — “NASA does a lot of funding and grants”  — and how much it can benefit students. Being part of the group didn’t just help her learn about building robots, she noted — it also taught her how to get people interested in something and recruit a team, as well as technical processes like Web site building, design and programming. 

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Schloss reached out to City Councilman Paul Koretz and asked him to visit.

“I spent a week and a half drafting an e-mail” to Koretz, she said. The councilman obliged, and came to the school to talk to her team and learn about what they do.

Schloss hopes he’ll be able to help other local schools follow Milken’s lead.

“Not many public schools in L.A. have robotics,” she said, “but it is a great program.”

In addition to her love of mechanics and engineering, Schloss is an accomplished tennis player. Having taken lessons at Beverly Hills Tennis for eight years, she made the Milken varsity girl’s tennis team as a sophomore and was a starting singles player. Her ease in moving between robotics and the tennis court is best described by the general manager of Beverly Hills Tennis, Hally Cohen, who writes in an e-mail about Schloss’ “ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute and then in the same breath smack a forehand going 90 miles per hour.”

When asked about the Rubik’s Cube, Schloss laughed, affirming that she can indeed solve it in less than 60 seconds. “It’s just something to pass the time when you’re bored,” she said.

Next year, Schloss will head off to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was accepted on early action and plans to continue her studies in aeronautics. She’ll leave behind her Milken community, and along with the robotics and tennis teams, she’ll say goodbye to the Traditional Students Club, which she started in order to get to know other Modern Orthodox kids at the school.

But Schloss knows she’s on her way to a place where she’ll have no trouble fitting in.

“I visited the campus and met all these amazing people,” she said of her future alma mater. “Even when I got into other schools, I just realized that MIT is it; that’s the place for me.”

Runway leads to social entrepreneurship


The idea for Fashion With Compassion, a student-run fashion show where models don’t just show off stylish clothes but also offer help for Israel, came to Celine Yousefzadeh after she attended a charity fashion show at another school. She thought: Why not bring it to Milken?

“I did not know how I was going to do it, what I was going to do, who was going to be involved, but I knew it had to be done,” said Yousefzadeh, who turns 18 later this month. “After that, no one could really stop me.”

She teamed up with her classmate, Lexie Sokolow, who shared her vision of a charity fashion show. But some administrators and rabbis triedto stop the event’s co-founders. Penciling an untried event into the high school’s already jam-packed calendar was the first obstacle. Once they did, some rabbis told them that students should be models of Jewish values — not of designer clothes.

“ ‘You’re essentially having a person act as a hanger,’ ” Yousefzadeh recalls them saying. “ ‘It’s devaluing them.’ When we got these comments, we constantly said it was different. Our purpose is for Israel. Our purpose is a different way to raise awareness and funds for Israel.”

In fact, she was driven by a dedication to Israel and community empowerment instilled within her by educators at Milken Community High School and Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School.

Making the event happen became a crash course in social entrepreneurship, providing real-life lessons in management, communications, marketing and teamwork.

Their first show was a hit, with 200 rallying around the runway, raising $5,000 for the town of Sderot, hard hit by rockets from Gaza. The second show drew 300 people and raised $6,000 for Atidim, a program for advancing the underprivileged in Israel. By the time she became a senior, Yousefzadeh and Sokolow had the third annual show running like clockwork, with more than 100 students participating as planners, stylists and models, and high-profile companies participating as sponsors, including American Apparel, GENLUX Magazine, OPI, Scoop NYC, Teen Vogue and Westfield. Held on a Mitzvah Day last November, the show drew 600 people and raised $10,000 for Save a Child’s Heart.

“We were literally engaging everyone in our community and outside of it,” Yousefzadeh said,  “That experience itself allowed me to become the person that I am.”

Fashion With Compassion is now a Milken annual tradition. When Yousefzadeh enters Bentley University in Massachusetts to study business, she plans to run a Fashion With Compassion franchise for Jewish schools all over.

“If I can help others live their lives to the fullest and really take advantage of what they have to offer the world, I would love to do that.”

The big picture helps her balance it all


It took Judith Greenbaum 40 long minutes before she finally signed the form to decline acceptance at Harvard. “Yeah, that was a tough one,” Greenbaum, who is graduating from YULA Girls School, said as she laughed, “but it just wasn’t the right choice for my life’s big picture.” Her future hopes center around being an involved mother, leading an active Jewish life and pursuing a career in business. With New York’s Jewish community at her doorstep, Greenbaum believes Columbia University will offer better preparation for the life she envisions, after studying at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim.

Finding balance is Greenbaum’s constant struggle, while she juggles being co-regional president of NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth), co-captain of YULA’s Model U.N. team, playing on the tennis and soccer teams and writing for the school newspaper. She also maintains top grades and created a campaign to raise awareness about the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. There’s little time to catch up on sleep, even during summer vacations, when she has traveled to Israel on Yad B’Yad’s program for kids with disabilities and participated in NCSY’s overseas JOLT program for Jewish Leadership. 

Why does she push herself so hard? “I really just want to get the best out of life. I never want to say I had all of these opportunities and I just blew them,” explains Greenbaum.

The youngest of four kids, Greenbaum is happiest when she feels she’s contributing to the world, which is why she was motivated to act two years ago following a lecture about Shalit, who has been held prisoner by Hamas since June 2006. Greenbaum wrote to Israel’s prime minister, spoke with local consuls, set up a Web site and created a national high school project involving more than 30 schools across the country, writing letters urging efforts for Shalit’s release. She and leaders at the other schools organized rallies and got wrist bracelets donated to raise awareness. 

It’s been a journey. Greenbaum started ninth grade unsure of who she was and what she wanted to do, so she tried almost everything, even some things that she wasn’t so great at — she got a non-singing part in the school’s musical. “I can’t sing or dance at all!” she said.

Involvement in NCSY has been a highlight of her high school years. Reveling in Havdalah services and the chance to make friends with all types of people, she summed it up by saying, “I love being Jewish, and I love the fact that I love being Jewish.”

Fixing the world, one extracurricular at a time


On the Web site for The Boiling Point, Shalhevet High School’s student newspaper, Jaclyn Kellner’s biography says she spends more time at school than most of the teachers do.

That’s because Kellner, who will spend five months working with Eco-Israel, an agricultural program in Modi’in, next year before attending Brandeis University in fall 2012, is involved with more extracurricular activities than seems possible for any 18-year-old.

The class salutatorian has had an award-winning tenure with the school’s newspaper — she was community editor during her junior year and is now deputy editor-in-chief, in addition to serving as Torah editor, and she won two awards from the National Scholastic Press Association. Kellner is also chair of her school’s community service committee and has worked with Shalhevet’s drama club, both as an actress and stage manager.

Not to mention her out-of-school extracurricular activities, which include six weeks volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to help construct homes for low-income families near Little Rock, Ark., and assisting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as well as working with the childcare program at her synagogue, B’nai David-Judea, and volunteering with KOREH L.A. and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles.

“You have to be able to really enjoy it and make it meaningful,” Kellner said of the key to her success in all these activities.

“I never understood the college-as-motivation type thing,” she said, dispelling the idea that she did it all to get into a good school. “Obviously, you want to do well enough that you’ll have choices, but I never did tailor what I was doing to get into a specific college.”

Her wisdom also has informed difficult journalistic decisions. In 2010, when a Hebrew teacher at Shalhavet was sentenced to five years’ probation for an art-heist-related felony, and the incident received considerable — if uneven — coverage in the Los Angeles Times, Kellner long debated whether it would be productive for the school’s paper to run a story on the teacher, given that the teacher was already suffering. Ultimately, the paper ran a story, but Kellner wrote an accompanying piece that examined why it was OK to do so, according to Jewish law and the rules governing lashon harah (spreading gossip).

“If something is wrong, and you have the power to fix it, why wouldn’t you?” Kellner said. “I felt like we had the power to go and fix it.”

24 merit badges and a ‘Varsity’ kippah


To become an Eagle Scout, a boy needs to earn at least 21 merit badges. Harel Rush, 18, is the first Eagle Scout to come out of the Beverly Hills-based, Orthodox-run Boy Scout Troop 360. He earned 24 badges — “the two hardest were ‘family life’ and ‘personal management,’ ” he said. But when Rush showed up for this interview, he was sporting a different piece of material: the standard-issue yellow-and-black kippah worn by many YULA boys.

The kippah — which features the school mascot, a Panther — comes complete with built-in clips on the underside, perfect for athletes like Rush. In four years at YULA, he competed on four different Panther sports teams: cross-country, track, baseball and golf (although not at the same time).

But Rush, who will spend a gap year in Israel at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, and possibly another in the Israel Defense Forces   before enrolling at Syracuse University, has also demonstrated a commitment to those less able to, say, drive a golf ball, turn a 6-4-3 double play or tie a bowline. (Or fix an iPod: Rush recently repaired his five-year-old model with guidance from videos he found on YouTube.)

When he became a bar mitzvah, Rush decided to celebrate together with a boy with special needs who was turning 13 around the same time. Rush and this boy — appropriately named Bar — were paired up by Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli organization that provides services for children and adults with special needs. On the occasion of the joint celebration, Rush raised about $10,000 for the organization.

In the years since, Rush has continued working with the developmentally disabled. He spent five weeks last summer volunteering at Beit Issie Shapiro’s therapeutic daycare center in Ra’anana. In Los Angeles, he has been a regular volunteer with Yachad and The Friendship Circle, two organizations also dedicated to improving the lives of those with special needs.

“When you see these kids that have special needs, after a few days, they seem like regular kids,” Rush said. “They wanted to run around. They wanted to hold my hand. They wanted to play. I realized that they’re regular people — they just can’t express themselves the same way we do.”

As an Eagle Scout, Rush is in good company, joining Hank Aaron, Neil Armstrong, Gerald Ford and Steven Spielberg, not to mention 11 members of his own family.

To earn that title, Rush organized regular blood drives at his school. “Each pint can save up to three lives, and someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds,” Rush said. He started in his first year of high school, when he was too young to even donate.

“As years went on, it got a lot easier,” Rush said. “It was easier to convince younger grades than it was to convince older grades.”

Combining rigorous debate, humble leadership


At the end of Danny Hirsch’s first week at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), a fellow freshman tapped him on the shoulder as he sat eating lunch, alone.

Showing genuine concern, the student wanted to know if Danny was mute, since he had yet to speak to another student.

Having his voice heard is no longer a problem for Hirsch.

This week, Hirsch will represent the senior class as a speaker at graduation. And in April he placed second in a statewide debate tournament.

Hirsch got involved in the debate team when it was founded, in his junior year, and by December he was the captain. He involved more students and instituted more school-wide and intramural debates to keep the energy level up.

Hirsch himself went undefeated in local and regional rounds of the California High School Speech Association tournament this year, and he placed second in the statewide final round.

He specializes in the Lincoln-Douglas format, a model based on researching and presenting evidence and philosophical arguments on a topic chosen every two months by the National Forensic League. Aside from the intellectual rigor, Hirsch has found a community among debaters.

“There is this friendly, cooperative atmosphere, juxtaposed with a ruthlessly competitive environment,” Hirsch said.

Working with rabbis in his school, he came up with ways to distinguish Shabbat during Friday night and Saturday debates — using different color pens, for instance, and reciting the Hamotzi blessing over the bread and the Shehecheyanu prayer of gratitude before tournaments.

Hirsch, who will attend Pomona College in the fall, plans to study law or philosophy. This summer, he’ll coach a debate camp and run a weeklong institute to teach debate skills to high-schoolers.

Hirsch also helped found his school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, where members tutor elementary and middle-school kids.

Respected among his peers not only for his intellect, but also for his humility and kindness, Hirsch earned the highest GPA in his class. He volunteers to tutor bar and bat mitzvah kids at his synagogue, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, where he also helps out with third-graders at the religious school. He is vice president of NCJHS’ film club and writes the “Senior Musings” column for the school newspaper.

During ninth and 10th grades, he played on the school’s junior varsity basketball team and played in a local field hockey league through 11th grade, but he gave up sports to focus on debate.

“The atmosphere at New Jew and the connection among students and with teachers allowed me to blossom as an individual and gave me motivation to pursue my interest in debate, because I knew I would have a community who would support me whether I succeeded or failed,” Hirsch said.